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There is just one way out… Why We Live In Fear Of Failure

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While no one consciously tries to fail, everybody has experienced failure. It is not just individuals who fail. Institutions, businesses, policies, strategies, leadership, governance and indeed, as Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson so eloquently argued in their best-selling book, even nations fail.

In other words, there is nothing unusual or uncommon about failure. Yet, the very thought of failure or even its likelihood worries and upsets us. Over time, we learn to fear failure.

This aversion towards failure determines the manner in which an individual starts to see himself. He sees himself as being responsible for what has happened.

What brings this about? I believe it is primarily driven by the social space we inhabit, which considers failure to be unacceptable and undesirable. People feel they have been unexpectedly denied something they were hoping for and were looking forward to. Their disappointment can trigger anger, ridicule and resentment, including the branding of the person or persons, who have let them down, as “losers”. In their eyes, failure occurred because these persons lacked in something fundamental. Consequently, they are not “winners”. This is especially apparent in sports but is also widely prevalent in our personal, social and professional life.

What the external space does is to wire our brain to glorify success and thereby, reject failure. We are repulsed by failure and even its very likelihood. Consequently, all of us hate to fail.



It is drilled into us that failure is bad and, over time, we begin to subscribe to such a view because we all wish to be part of the winning team. This is the objective behind the socialisation process.

This aversion towards failure determines the manner in which an individual starts to see himself. He sees himself as being responsible for what has happened. It is he, he tells himself, who failed those around him. It is he who is the failure.

Often, such perceptions can have merciless and extreme consequences, which can defy rational thinking. It is no exaggeration to say that it can lead to suicide and in extreme cases, even murder.

In India and several other South Asian countries, it is a tragic reality that students have committed suicide after failing to perform well in their studies because they saw their failure as causing embarrassment to the family. Similarly, in several developing countries, including India, there is a prevailing cultural bias in favour of sons. Daughters are considered an unwelcome financial burden. Indeed, the sentiment is so strong that, in several cases, infant girls are either abandoned or killed immediately after they are born. Among subscribers of this kind of social thinking, women who deliver daughters are considered failures.

This culturally perceived “inadequacy” of the woman coupled with other shortcomings, such as the failure by her family to provide sufficient dowry, has resulted not only in driving many hapless women into committing suicide but also, as several cases of dying declarations have demonstrated, in the ruthless instigation of their suicide by the husband and members of his family. Honour killings, similarly, are socially sanctioned retributory actions by families and communities, who fail to prevent what they consider to be an illegitimate and unacceptable liaison.

The significant influence of social media is also a matter of concern and anxiety. Individuals can, in fact, be made to believe that they are failures. While a direct co-relation between cyber bullying and suicide is yet to be established, it is now acknowledged that online taunting can cause depression, reinforce low self-esteem and act as a catalyst in perceiving suicide as the only available escape route.

The significant influence of social media is also a matter of concern and anxiety. Individuals can, in fact, be made to believe that they are failures.

Consider the case of Tyler Clementi, for instance, who killed himself after his roommate at Rutgers University secretly filmed him kissing another man. According to the New Yorker, the filming would have been the incontrovertible evidence that he was gay, a fact which he had recently disclosed to his family; he was already facing some censure. He felt hugely let down by those he felt might understand and accept his sexual orientation and be supportive of his coming out. Documents found on Clementi’s computer by investigating agencies, after his suicide, used words like “sorry” and “why is everything so painful?”

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His mother, apparently, was visibly upset when he told her that he was gay. She saw it as a massive disappointment. Her reaction made him feel cornered and isolated. If his family could not accept him as he was, who would, he wondered. The filming embarrassed him because he realised that it had the potential of accelerating public disclosure that he was gay. He worried at the consequences of how he might now be perceived by the other members of his family, his friends, his peer group and his fellow students. He might even have wondered as to whether he would now be publicly isolated and taunted and become, in fact, an object of ridicule. He felt humiliated, unsure and insecure.

Suicide appeared to be the only escape from a world that, in his perception, was most likely to uncontrollably spiral towards labeling him a “failure” and hounding him. While some might consider his decision to commit suicide an extreme one, the “he’s-different” attitude is often a synonym for “he’s-a-failure” and can severely undermine self-esteem and reinforce a deep sense of helplessness.

The case of Rebecca Ann Sedwick is similar. She was harassed online for almost a year by around 15 fellow students with messages like “you are so ugly”, “drink bleach and die”, “go and jump off a building”, “why aren’t you dead”. Unable to take it anymore, Rebecca hurled herself to her death. She was 12 years old.

Existentialist literature explores how individuals who are unable to connect with others or their external environment perceive themselves as failures. They constantly berate and discredit themselves as lacking in something critical and necessary. Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide at the age of 30, writes in Journals, “Someone, somewhere, can you understand me a little, love me a little?” and then again, ‘Perhaps someday I’ll crawl back home, beaten, defeated.” Or Virginia Woolf, who suffered from bouts of mental illness and on March 28th, 1941 put on her overcoat and filled the pockets with stones and walked into the River Ouse, which was near her home, and committed suicide by drowning. In a letter, she writes, “I am so odd, and I am so limited, and I am so different from the ordinary human being.” Psychologists consider Plath and Woolf as being mentally unstable and thus, failures in being normal.

[I]ndividuals start substituting the expectations of the external space for the ones they have of themselves.

In existentialist literature, the protagonist is increasingly alienated first from his external environment and then, finally and tragically, from himself. He becomes a failure in his own eyes.

The above examples illustrate that the fear of failure is driven entirely by perceptions of what constitutes failure and further, that it is the external environment that determines this perception. In other words, the individual is socialised to be vigilant and conscious of the expectations the external world has of the way in which he is expected to think, behave and perform. He is made to recognise that feedback on his performance would be the basis on which he would be judged. His sole concern [fear] is to ensure that he is not branded as a failure. How the external environment perceives his performance is, thus, critical to his assessment of himself.



Effectively, this bestows legitimacy to the external environment in determining what failure is, how it should be perceived and the consequences that follow. Individuals and institutions are, then, in a perennial state of anxiety, nervousness and the fear of failure.

Instilling this kind of state of mind serves the interests of the external space because it creates an instant aversion among its members to failure. They start to subscribe to the need for vigilance and sustained effort to deliver on expectations. Performance is, then, at a heightened level.

What this suggests is that individuals start substituting the expectations of the external space for the ones they have of themselves. They know the implications of not doing so and since no one would consciously wish to become an object of social ridicule and derision, they subscribe to these externally imposed expectations. Not to conform would brand them as deviants and thereby, attract punishment. It is, therefore, understandable that no one would like to fail.

Fear… can be conquered if we shift our thinking from what others expect from us to what we expect from ourselves.

The fear of failure can be conquered if the individual recognises his or her primacy. In other words, if he learns to move away from the expectations others have of him. Personal benchmarks need to be set through which we judge our performance. We need, in other words, to live up to the expectations we have of ourselves.

This requires rewiring our thinking into identifying what drives us and, in fact, what makes us push hard against boundaries and in defying odds. It allows us to live our dreams. When we do so, our notions of success/failure would dramatically change. It is then that success and failure would lose meaning.

When the great Muhammad Ali got into the boxing ring, he did so to live his own dream. As indeed did Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, who were the first to climb Mount Everest at a time when it was considered impossible. Or Laura Dekker, who at the age of 16, circumnavigated the globe solo because it was the one single thing she simply had to do. Or Maurice Goodman, also known as “the miracle man”, who was told he would live a life of complete dependency after a death-defying accident but, through sheer willpower and extraordinary effort, proved it was possible to challenge the “impossible.”

Fear, in other words, can be conquered if we shift our thinking from what others expect from us to what we expect from ourselves.